Presidential elections are scheduled in Cameroon for October 7, and barring an unexpected development Paul Biya is on his way to secure another seven-year term and to start his 37thyear in office. This is despite the fact that Cameroon is in a drastically more precarious position than it was last election. Tepid economic growth, an ongoing Boko Haram threat in the north, and a devastating crisis in English-speaking regions have led to sharp declines in human security. The continent also seems to have had its share of presidents for life, as seen most dramatically in the recent departure of Robert Mugabe from the national scene in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, most predict that Biya will emerge victoriously. The current opposition landscape simply cannot muster enough force, and Biya enjoys enormous advantages as head of state.
The Competition: A Fragmented Field Once Again
As in past elections, the opposition has failed to coalesce into a unified front. Historically, this has been to their detriment. In 1992, during Cameroon’s first multiparty election, Paul Biya won the election with a mere plurality of 40% while the opposition split the vote between five other candidates. In 2004, the National Reconciliation and Renomination Coalition (CRRN) fell apart before the election when John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) withdrew his support. During the last presidential election in 2011 no less than 22 candidates were on the ballot.
This cycle the election management body ELECAM has approved nine candidates, including Biya. Three are representative of Cameroon’s nearly 300 “mushroom parties” – former student activist Cabral Libii Ngue of the Universe party, Serge Espoir Matomba of the United People for Social Renewal (PURS), and Pentecostal pastor Ndifor Afanwi Franklin of the Cameroon National Citizen Movement (MCNC). These parties come and go every cycle, and are often framed around the ambitions of individual figures or niche issues. They generally garner less than 1% of the vote, and are mainly opportunities for individuals outside of the establishment to raise their profile and perhaps gain some international financial support. Others believe that they are there to “muddy the waters” and dilute the opposition. It is not cheap to run for president and it requires a financial deposit of 30 million CFA (~$50,000), indicating that these candidates have some means.
Alongside these figures are two household names that are more akin to a symbolic opposition. Adamou Ndam Njoya is a former member of government, and in 1992 founded the opposition Cameroon Democratic Union (UDC). Njoya has been on the national stage for decades and has run for president in every election. But, he now has very little appeal outside of his home area of Bamoun, and even more specifically the Noun Department. He is joined by former minister Garga Haman Adji of the Alliance for Democracy and Development (ADD). Garga left the ruling party in 1992 and is a frequent critic of government corruption. He ran for president in 2004 and 2011, winning just 3% of the vote.
The main opposition drama is between the remaining three candidates: Joshua Osih of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Akere Muna of the Popular Front for Development (FPD), and Maurice Kamto of the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon (MRC). Only Osih is a member of a longstanding opposition party. Osih’s nomination signals a generational shift in the SDF away from its chairman and perpetual presidential candidate, John Fru Ndi. Osih is young and Anglophone, but appeals to Cameroon’s French-speaking areas. He has campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, improved services, and a return to federalism. Moreover, he has relatively deep pockets from his aviation business. His major liability is his young age (49), which has caused some skepticism over whether he has the ability to steer the complex ship of the Cameroonian state.
By contrast, Kamto and Muna are both veteran attorneys with significant international exposure and pedigree. Kamto was Biya’s delegate to the Ministry of Justice between 2004 and 2011 and active in the United Nation’s International Law Commission. But, Kamto and most of the MRC are of the Bamileké ethnic group from West region, which has left him vulnerable to accusations of tribalism. Akere Muna is an Anglophone and a former Vice President at the international corruption monitoring organization Transparency International. He is also a scion of one of Cameroon’s most famous families. Akere’s father, Solomon Tandeng Muna, was the Prime Minister of Cameroon and later President of the National Assembly. His brother Bernard is another well-known lawyer and former activist in the SDF. His sister Ama Tutu was Minister of Arts and Culture between 2007 and 2015. Kamto and Muna are also running on campaigns of anti-corruption and have staked out support for federalism.
This creates an opposition field that will undoubtedly split the vote more than it needs to be. No candidate has excluded the possibility of a coalition, and each has made statements that a single presidential candidate would be the most beneficial. But as in past attempts there is no consensus over who would lead such a coalition. In 2004, opposition contenders agreed that a commission should choose the most appropriate presidential candidate based on a point system. However, that system broke down after Ndam Njoya was chosen by that very system. Moreover, a united opposition still does not have sufficient numbers to topple Biya. This means that some candidates might not be thinking just about 2018, but also about the next election in 2025 when Biya will be 92 years old and will more likely step down from power.
The Incumbent: The Advantages of State
Paul Biya enters this electoral contest with immense advantages built up over decades in power. First, it is important to recall that Biya’s candidacy is the result of a 2008 constitutional amendment that removed term limits. That maneuver was meant to defer on question regarding Biya’s succession, which risked creating irreparable rifts within the ruling party. As president, Biya has held together a tenuous multiethnic coalition based on patronage. Biya distributes cabinet portfolios, civil service positions, and development resources in implicit exchange for political support. This distribution has created winners and losers, and is seen as particularly beneficial to Biya’s Southern co-ethnics, the Beti. Change in leadership would signal a change in distribution that would undermine the existing order. Biya’s candidacy is basically a continuation of the status quo.
Biya has already maintained the support of various elites. A group of 20 opposition parties that call themselves the G20 have backed Biya. The G20 have stated that their support is for the sake of national security, but also that they see the chances of Biya losing as miniscule. Therefore, staying loyal to the president improves their standing and chances of obtaining benefits after the election. Importantly, the bulk of northern elites, who were at some point a significant opposition front, are also behind Biya. For instance, Cameroon’s Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma is not from the ruling party but has been a frequent spokesman for the regime during the crisis in Anglophone areas. Likewise, Bello Bouba Maigari was once a serious presidential contender, but is now content as Minister of Tourism.
Alongside this system of patronage, Biya has access to significant resources of the state and enjoys significant presidential powers. Earlier this year he had parliament pass a bill that deferred the legislative elections due to the logistical cost of operating multiple elections within the challenging security context. During past elections, it was common for teachers, local administrators, and state-recognized traditional chiefs to campaign for the ruling party. The ruling party uses state-owned resources like vehicles and stadiums during elections, and state-owned media is heavily tilted toward the president. Indeed, in 2004 and 2011 Biya barely campaigned, and spent much of his time abroad.
There are also concerns over whether the election itself will be free and fair. A limited number of international observers regularly arrive in Cameroon, and there is a very small domestic observation capacity. The creation of ELECAM in 2008 has improved the management of elections in Cameroon, and incidents of outright fraud have declined since 1992. But, the president appoints members of ELECAM and appointed governors are responsible for many election related activities. For example, governors issue permits for gatherings and rallies, and can declare states of emergency that limit freedom of movement. In the past, opposition actors have frequently been detained over so-called violations of various statutes regarding political organization.
Most importantly, the Boko Haram situation and crisis in English-speaking region has led to significant issues with election preparation. Hundreds of thousands of Cameroonians are displaced, and ongoing violence might keep many away from the polls. There are reportedly significant issues with voter registration, and it is not clear how many polling stations will actually be open and accessible in English-speaking areas. The SDF has already rejected a government proposal to move polling stations into military barracks. These issues impact opposition areas particularly hard. While opposition figures like Osih or Muna are likely to win large swaths of the English-speaking regions, the total number of votes might very well be much lower than in previous elections.
The fragmented opposition and Biya’s powerful hand combine to create a sense of apathy among many voters. While many are galvanized given the dire economic and political conditions, others only see more of the same.